Jerry Hughes: Perpetually Under the Radar

01/17/2019
DB+

Year after year, Bills fans have been trying to find reasons to move on from defensive end Jerry Hughes, but each season he shows why the organization hasn’t budged. Reports were that the team even turned down trade offers for the veteran. It’s simple; Hughes produces, and he simply doesn’t get the credit he should. Maybe it’s because he hasn’t eclipsed ten sacks since the 2014 season. Maybe it’s the $10.4+ million dollar cap hit he’s cost the Bills the last few seasons. Or maybe it’s his emotional outbursts and 46 penalties (only four in 2018) over the last four years. Whatever the reason, Hughes has been slept on in Buffalo and across the league. Well, in year two under defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, Hughes woke everyone up.

Run Defense

The 2018 season was different for Hughes against the run. He was asked to essentially play the run on the way to the quarterback. This was vastly different than 2017, when the Bills’ run defense was one of the worst in the league. They were especially weak up the middle, so in an attempt to slow teams down, Hughes had more responsibilities as a run defender. In 2018, he was given a little more freedom because the Bills upgraded the defensive tackle positions. Per Pro Football Focus, he only racked up 24 total tackles against the run and 15 run stops this season, compared to his 38 total tackles and 24 run stops in 2017. But teams still needed to account for him in the run game.

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On a weekly basis teams attempted to influence Hughes, to test his discipline, but he only rarely failed the test. Teams tried influencing him with linemen or sending false keys and jet action at him in an attempt to slow down his processing. Take a look at this play from week two. The Chargers try to make the play look like a crack toss to Hughes’s side, but he is keen to the reverse.

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In week seven, the Colts try to influence Hughes in two different ways as they run counter trey. On the snap, the tight end releases as if it’s a pass and the left tackle fakes or attempts to influence Hughes as if he is going to go block him. Instead, the tackle blocks down on the deuce block (double team between the guard and tackle). Hughes doesn’t rush the QB or attempt to set an edge versus the tackle, both of which would give the pulling guard a much easier block and make the running lane that much bigger. Instead, he stays tight to the double team, eliminates his blocking surface, and brings the back down.

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In week nine, the Bears try to get Hughes to chase the jet action away so that they can break contain and get running back Tarik Cohen on the perimeter. Hughes stays true to his responsibility as the Bears run the counter trey. He takes on the guard with his inside shoulder to ‘box’ the play in and wraps Cohen up.

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Versatility

One area of Hughes’s game that often goes unnoticed, even at the age of 30, is his athletic ability. He has the ability to rush the quarterback or drop into coverage, and in 2018, the staff took advantage of that ability much more. Hughes dropped into coverage on 4.2% of his snaps, up from 1.2% in 2017. He surrendered three receptions on five targets for 32 yards but was critical to Frazier’s simulated pressure and zone blitz packages.

Flashback to week four against the Green Bay Packers. The Bills send an overload blitz from the boundary and drop Hughes into coverage. Hughes is responsible for walling off the #3 receiver, tight end Jimmy Graham. Rodgers feels the pressure closing in but isn’t comfortable throwing it to Graham with Hughes in coverage.

The well-disguised blitz and coverage by Hughes cause Rodgers to hold the ball, and rookie cornerback Taron Johnson flies in and causes the fumble.

These blitzes can put a lot of pressure on a defensive end, but that’s what was asked of Hughes and Trent Murphy (coverage on 4.1% of snaps). Look at how fluid Hughes is in his backpedal as he drops to his zone. But more important was his hustle to the ball to force fourth down.

Pass Rush

But where Hughes has made his money over the course of his career has been as a pass rusher. He is still one of the quickest rushers in the league and boasts very good change of direction and a bevy of moves.

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Hughes may have only finished with eight sacks per PFF, which was good for 14th-best, but there is much more to rushing the passer than sacks. Hughes notices the tackle kick slide too wide and the inside gap is open because DT Star Lotulelei is occupying two linemen, so he rushes upfield then slants hard inside and forces McCown to get rid of it. As a result, linebacker Matt Milano intercepts it down the field. This QB hit was one of 12 on the season, which was the 7th-most among DEs.

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Hughes led all defensive ends in PFF’s pass rush productivity stat, and by a long shot. His 15.3 pass rush productivity rating was just under four points higher than the next closest pass rusher, Frank Clark (11.6). Hughes led all pass rushers with 74 total pressures, including 50 QB pressures, which was the second-most among defensive ends. Against the Texans, a game in which he registered two sacks, two QB hits and five QB pressures, Hughes recognizes the running back coming to help the tackle, so he darts inside. The tackle tries riding him wide of QB Deshaun Watson’s setup, but Hughes plants and attacks the ball. Hughes forced three fumbles on the season, good for 6th-most in the NFL.

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The star pass rusher was a maniac on third downs in 2018 by creating 26 QB pressures, the second-most in the NFL. His 20.16% QB pressure rate on third downs was also the second-highest, behind only Marcus Davenport.

 

The nine-year veteran is a difference maker. His pass-rushing savvy helps others rack up statistics. Here you see Hughes string together a stab, chop and rip to beat down the edge of the tackle. The pressure forces Cousins to drop his eyes and Kyle Williams registers the sack.

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How much respect does Hughes get from the league? How many players around the league are quadrupled on a play? Not many.

 

Opposing offenses are scared of Hughes, so they often slid protections in his direction, kept in a tight end, or chipped with running backs. But when you commit resources like that, you often give others opportunities, and that is exactly what happens on this play. The offensive line not only slides to Hughes, but they keep a tight end in to help. This leaves Trent Murphy one-on-one to register the sack.

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So while the league shows Hughes the respect he deserves on the field, many Bills fans don’t. Moving on from Hughes would be a huge mistake, even if it is in the final year of his deal. You can’t release a productive player at a premier position.

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That would not only create a hole at the position, but it would also affect several players across the defensive front. Hughes is an effective run stopper, but he is hands down the Bills’ best pass rusher, and moving on from him would immediately make the Bills’ defense worse.

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